Part 5 Young LGBT activists
In more than a decade, the LGBT movement in China had grew from a movement that was almost invisible to a young and energetic social movement. (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender. In Chinese, the term for these communities is Tongzhi (同志). Wide participation of young Tongzhi opened a new chapter for the movement, especially in the era of social media. However, since the increase of political pressure and tightening of financial control, a large group of Tongzhi groups were forced to close down. The remaining groups had no choice but to transform. In a limited space, young LGBT activists developed grassroots community-building and provided services. They raised the social acceptance of LGBT people through advocacy actions. This report attempts to give an overview of the Tongzhi community by focusing on three groups - young activists joining Tongzhi groups, activists in Tongzhi groups on campus, and transgender young activists. The report explores the growth of these activists, summarizes their models of activism and organising (especially during the pandemic), and discusses the challenges and future facing these activists.
1. Landscape of the activist communities
Born between 1992 and 2003, these young activists mostly come from urban middle-class families. Some of them grew up in villages. Many of them are the only child of their family. Some are high school students joining Tonzhi groups and some universities students in Tongzhi groups. Some are staff members and volunteers of civil society Tongzhi groups. With their own minorities’ sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as lived experience, they joined the Tongzhi movement and through which they entered the civil society and became aware of more social issues. A lot of these activists also devoted themselves to the movement of feminism, AIDS, labour, disabilities and other issues.
A core theme of the lives of these activists is the understanding in, exploration of and reflection on sex and gender. Each of them has their own unique and valuable experience. Since young, these activists have been perceived as heterosexual and cisgender people. They must hide their abnormal side while having constant internal struggle. Almost all of the activists experienced domestic violence and school bullying because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE). These experiences of trauma and self-suppression prompted them to look for resources for understanding the world and themselves. A lot of these activists accepted themselves and acknowledged their self-identity through getting information from the internet before attending university. A minority of them fully accepted their self-identity when studying overseas. Feminism and queer theories allowed them to understand the power structure of the cisgender heterosexual hegemony and fully embraced the pursuit of equality and diversity.
Young LGBT activists participated in the movement mostly through platforms like Tongzhi groups and Tongzhi groups on campus. Activists, including university students and recent graduates, got to understand Tongzhi groups through participating in Tongzhi community activities. They were attracted by the issues and the work promoted by these groups. These young activists participated as full-time/ part-time staff, interns and volunteers. Early Tongzhi groups on campus were developed by the teaching assistant teams of gender studies courses launched by university teaching staff. Advice and support of the teaching staff played a crucial role in the development of these groups. Therefore, early Tongzhi groups were mostly in elite universities. The development of Tongzhi groups on campus was closely intertwined with that of Tongzhi groups. After joining youth training programmes organised by Tongzhi groups, young activists established Tongzhi groups on campus, which promoted student Tongzhi movement across the country.
2. Models of activism and organising
(1) Tongzhi groups
Due to the shrinking space for civil society activism and increasing control over overseas funding, a large group of Tongzhi organisations were forced to close down. Many organisations started to transform and adopted the approach of establishing project funds with the government and mainstream foundations. They also became more focused on professionalism. There were successful and failed cases of becoming mainstream charity. Within the limited space, Tongzhi groups adopted the approach of cooperating with multiple stakeholders. They coordinated the efforts of the civil society, legal sector, education sector, academic, public health, psychology, media, business, arts and government departments. These coordinated efforts developed services and advocacy in diverse areas including AIDS intervention, mental health, family acceptance, same-sex marriage, gender equality education, workplace equality, school bullying, domestic violence, healthcare for transgender people, de-pathologization, conversion therapy, and workplace diversity. These efforts achieved good results. Although repression was still rampant, discrimination was still widespread, and the aforementioned results were still fragile, the bottom-up Tongzhi movement was still active. This is especially important at a time when the governments hostility towards the civil society has been growing.
(2) Tongzhi groups on campus
Tongzhi groups on campus has started to grow since 2005. The number of these groups increased in past five years. In terms of distribution, university Tongzhi groups were mostly in areas where education resources are abundant, such as Changjiang delta, Zhujiang delta, Beijing, Tianjin, Wuhan and Xian. In terms of scale, the core teams of Tongzhi groups usually comprised of 1-35 people, with volunteer teams with 4-60 people. Their goals were to increase the visibility of Tongzhi on campuses and build a Tongzhi-friendly campus environment. Their regular work included building Tongzhi communities on campus, AIDS prevention and testing, gender studies, and LGBT public education. On IDAHOTIB (15 May) and Spirit Day (third Thursday of October), these groups distributed rainbow flags, hand bands and public education flyers. They also organised talks and seminars to raise awareness. On social media, these groups built up their influence among the communities on platforms such as WeChat public account, QQ and douban. After years of hard work, the WeChat public account of a Tongzhi group on campus has become one of the most popular accounts in their university. Apart from that. The young LGBT activists circle highly overlapped with the young feminists circle. A lot of Tongzhi groups on campus also advocated for feminist issues. They participated in activism such as the #metoo movement against sexual harassment, and building sanitary pads sharing boxes.
Since the Tongzhi communities became more visible, international high schools’ groups and young activists had also emerged. They are well-off and have extensive channels for receiving information. The environment in international high school also broadened their horizons, giving them the courage to accept themselves. Their public education work usually started with gender diversity. Apart from giving out public education flyers and organising events like screening, these groups also organised activities that are more popular in the Tongzhi culture, such as cross-dressing events and Vogue ball.
(3) Transgender group
The global transgender movement is developing rapidly. In the past five years, a lot of youth transgender groups had emerged in China. They are mostly based in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Most of the core young transgender activists in these groups had interned or volunteered at Tongzhi groups. They had also joined capacity trainings and youth activists trainings organised by these groups. The emergence of the young transgender movement allowed people to see communities that are more gender nonbinary, queer, and breaking away from biological essentialism.
The rapid development of transgender communities was closely related to the rise of social media. In the past, apart from parks and streets where transgender sex workers gathered, transgender people could only gather in hospitals that provide healthcare services for transgender people, or fast-food shops near these hospitals. The online space on social media became a platform for transgender people to gather and communicate. Relying on WeChat public accounts and QQ, young transgender activists and other Tongzhi groups launched the first transgender hotline, through which they connected with more transgender communities.
Transgender people have a higher chance of experiencing domestic violence, school bullying, dropping out of school, unemployment and being subjected to conversion therapy. At the same time, they also experience more severe psychological problems- 67.6% of the respondents to one survey said they were strongly disgusted by their biological gender, and 72.8% experienced severe pain and anxiety during puberty. Youth transgender groups devoted themselves to providing companionship and peer support to the transgender communities. They also provided information about healthcare for transgender people, empowered transgender people financially, gave free counselling services, and provided cultural platform and media for transgender communities. Compared to the Tongzhi movement, transgender movement is more marginalized in the society. The visibility of their rights demands is lower.
(4) Activism in the Covid-19 pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to Tongzhi communities and groups. Lockdown and quarantine measures led to the delay and cancellation of work plans and put activists and groups in further financial predicament. Apart from that, people with AIDS could not obtain medication because of the quarantine measures. They risked running out of medication and developing drug resistance. As a result of the advocacy of early activists and people with AIDS, the Chinese government launched the Four Free Services and One Care policy. The policy includes the provision of a few free AIDS medication. During the pandemic, people with AIDS had to stop taking the free medication provided by the government. They had no access to more medication after the existing supply ran out. After they stopped using these medications the drugs lost their effectiveness. People with AIDS needed to pay for expensive drugs in order to control to virus. In order to solve the medication problem, Tongzhi organisations established groups for people with AIDS to share medication. On the other hand, they worked with disease control department to assist people with AIDS to get medication from different places in the country or get drugs through mail. In Covid-19 ground zero Wuhan, city and village lockdown made it almost impossible for people to go around. People with AIDS could not get medication. They could not get assistance after seeking help from police, sub-district offices and residents’ committees.
Amid the crisis, Wuhan Tongzhi Centre resumed operation immediately. Facing paramount risks and pressure, the group organised charity transportation and 100 volunteers to delivery medication to people with AIDS. The police stopped the transportation fleet at Changjiang Bridge. Wuhan Tongzhi Centre made a prompt decision to seek help on social media: “Emergency relief. The lives of these people should not be forgotten!” The post went viral and caught the attention of the pandemic control headquarters in Wuhan. Finally, the fleet got the entry permit. Wuhan Tonzhi Centre let decision-makers understand the predicament of intersectional marginalized communities.
Lockdown at home during the pandemic triggered a mental health crisis among Tongzhi communities. Because of the lockdown, many LGBT people had to live with their family for an extended period of time. Tongzhi communities therefore faced higher risks of having their SOGIE identities exposed by their family. Tongzhi communities were also more likely to have conflict with their family and experience domestic violence. The pandemic did not only cause cross-national health problems and put severe mental pressure on everyone. Due to the pandemic, transgender people also faced bigger difficulties in getter hormone treatment and gender-affirming surgery. These difficulties led to more mental health problems. In response to this, Tongzhi groups developed a variety of activities, including online mental health talks, sharing, and psychological crisis hotline. Tongzhi groups also handled emergency situations in the Tongzhi communities during the pandemic.
In April 2020, transgender woman Kao Yu was outed by her mother and was subjected to severe domestic violence. Her mother forced her to go to a hospital for so-called conversion therapy, which attempted to change the gender identity of Kao Yu through injections, electrocution, and insults. A number of groups worked together in this case. Some called the police remotely. Those who were on the ground hurried to the hospital to try to get Kao Yu out. They also provided continuous legal assistance, companionship, suicide intervention, and education targeting the parents. In the end, because of the impact of the volunteers and public discussions, the hospital decided to stop treating Kao Yu.
Almost all students attended school online at home for the entire spring semester. The connection among members of the Tongzhi groups and the hope of changing the unfriendly environment were possibly the two things that kept many in-school young Tongzhi activists going. The deprivation of opportunities to meet offline and organise activities was a heavy blow to Tongzhi groups on campus. Almost all groups stopped operating during the lockdown. The groups could not strengthen the bonding among members. They also lost the opportunity to build the capacity of new members. One core member of a group said: “Members who just joined the group did not have a strong sense of belonging and were not proactive. As a result, we did not recruit a single person when the semester started in summer. I am very worried about the handover of the group.” Only a few groups tried to organise online activities when classes were conducted online. However, because the groups lacked experiences in organising online events, the participation was very low.
3. Political control and repression
(1) Activists and development of work
Tongzhi groups and activists were pressured most frequently through the questioning of security departments, harassment targeting activists and their family, and cancellation or delay of activities due to authority’s harassment targeting event venues. In 2020, police questioned at least three of the core volunteers. The volunteers no longer felt safe because police arbitrarily searched their homes. Apart from national securities, commercial, civil affairs, sub-district offices, cultural audit departments also monitored and harassed the activists. Every June, also known as the pride month, Shanghai Pride organised many events such as rainbow run, parties, and film festival. The organisers also held activities that served the communities and Tongzhi groups, such as diverse recruitment fair and Tongzhi groups open day. Shanghai Pride, which was run entirely by volunteers, even fundraised for Tongzhi groups. In 2019, the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism ordered Shanghai Pride to pay an exorbitant fine of RMB 150000 because its film festival was not up to quality and was screening movies against the regulations. In August 2020, Shanghai Pride, an event running for 12 years consecutively, announced a halt of all activities.
(2) The problem of organisation registration
In terms of format of organising, Tongzhi groups still experienced difficulty because they could not register using the Tongzhi identity. Many of them opted for business registration or did not register at all. However, in second and third tier cities where control were comparatively lax, more Tongzhi groups registered as private non-enterprise entities under the framework of youth groups and social work groups. Registration gave Tongzhi groups a legal identity but allowed the government to bureaucratise its control over these groups. One individual in charge of one of the registered organisations confessed that the administrative costs and party building work were a heavy burden for a Tongzhi organisation with little resources and workforce. They did not only have to reduce advocacy work on LGBT equality, sometimes their supervising department even arranged some more mainstream work for them.
Tongzhi groups that focused on service provision were more likely to obtain a registration. Some organisations worked on AIDS prevention and education, and they often took advantage of their connections with government officials to carry out advocacy work. A positive example would be a Tongzhi group in a second-tier city. The group registered as a social work organisation way back in 2011. The group was good at using its connections with the government. The group often arranged other Tongzhi groups to play badminton with government officials. Being recognised by the law allowed these groups to establish connections with more government departments and garnered more social resources. The many years of collaboration helped them gain trust from the government and successfully came out of the closet to their supervising department. This allowed them to publicize and promote their services targeting LGBT people. Being recognized by the law and gaining trust from the government allowed their gender diversity training to enter education institutions, social work organisations, public security, disease control departments and even government departments. Their legal identity and the trust also resolved the longstanding complaint made by the neighbours about their office. They were also good at combining the needs of the Tongzhi communities and other mainstream topics such as youth services, gender education, AIDS prevention, and intervention in drug prevention. As a result, they could use government resources to develop a large body of work. At the same time, some activists also worried that Tongzhi groups that were absorbed by the government would lose the ability to be critical and only resolved social conflict as part of the machine that maintains stability.
(3) Restrictions targeting Tongzhi groups on campus
Among 50 Tongzhi groups in universities, only less than half of them could register as associations on campus. There groups were registered as gender studies, peer education and AIDS intervention groups. The registration of two of these groups were revoked. Without a legal identity, the groups could not recruit new members on campus or get venues in schools for events. Now many Tongzhi academics teach in universities upon finishing their education. They provided protection for Tongzhi groups in their universities and became their supervisors. These academics also helped coordinate between the groups and the university in order to find more space for the groups to organise events. The academics also provided academic support to the groups work and supported the groups to book venues and get resources in the university. Sometimes, university clinic and psychosocial workers could also provide support to the groups, giving the groups a legal status. However, when the university personnel left the university, these groups immediately became illegal again.
Tongzhi groups off campus and youth Tongzhi network also provided crucial support to Tongzhi groups on campus. They provided resources and capacity building for the groups and young LGBT activists, as well as opportunities for groups to meet face to face. These face-to-face meetings facilitated mutual learning, exchanges, and capacity building. Some young LGBT activists realised that the attitude of the university management was almost impossible to change, and the school would not open up space for Tongzhi groups in the short run. Therefore, they shifted their focus to outside campus, where they established independent youth Tongzhi groups.
Since the crackdown of leftist associations in 2018, authorities had further tightened their control over university students. According to a university teacher, the authorities were now very alarmed by student forming alliances and connections. Even inter-varsity basketball competition had to go through vigorous review. University counsellors, Youth League Committees, Student Affairs Offices and security departments exerted pressure directly on activists, or even pressured them through their parents. In order to intervene LGBT activities in universities, the university management even smeared groups using the nationalism narrative. In 2018, a university wanted to stop a group from organising activities on IDAHOTIB. The university made an announcement forbidding students to join the activities, claiming that the group was an illegal organisation used by overseas forces.
(4) The smearing of Tongzhi communities
In recent years, in order to solidify their power, the authorities strengthened the propaganda on nationalism and traditional culture. They also strengthened social control. Tongzhi groups and young LGBT activists had to face the authorities smearing of sex and Tongzhi communities on a moral, pathological and ideological level.
4. Reflection of the challenges and future facing the movement
(1) The financial predicament facing activists
The limited space and resources for Tongzhi movement restricted the personal growth of young LGBT activists. The meagre salary could not sustain their livelihood. A lot of activists were forced to leave the frontline of the movement because of financial pressure. Some Tongzhi groups held regular psychosocial groups to provide psychological support to activists, helping them to adjust their expectations.
(2) Groups on campus
Tongzhi groups on campus faced difficulty in the turnover of the groups. Almost every year many active associations had to stop operation due to the departure of core members. This is because these groups had difficulty in recruiting new student members without a legal identity. They also lacked internal capacity building, which resulted in inadequate experience in activism and no passing down of legacy. At the same time, the hostile campus environment demanded higher resilience and risk mitigation abilities from these young LGBT activists on campus. It was difficult for inexperienced activists to persist under the pressure from their family and security departments. Awareness from the outside is needed to support these young activists on campus. These activists needed support to increase their awareness of and capacity in risk mitigation. They also needed healing that targets the movement trauma experienced by young LGBT activist on campus. It is also pivotal to find university personnel and Tongzhi groups inside and outside universities that are willing to support these young LGBT activists on campus.
(3) Challenges and way out facing transgender communities
Compared to gay and lesbian communities, transgender communities were smaller and faced more severe discrimination. They also had worse mental health and faced heavier financial pressure. Public facilities such as toilet, changing room and dormitory are not transgender friendly. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism also attacked transgender communities in public discussions. The sense of belonging was low within the communities. Transgender activists also lacked experience in activism and advocacy. Transgender youth groups need more visible non-profit actions to attract people within the communities to join community activities. They also need to developed work on relatively urgent mental health issues, suicide prevention and intervention, and employment equality. Young transgender activists also need to develop multi-sector work with feminists. External stakeholders need to provide capacity building and resources for young transgender activists. These stakeholders also need to create opportunities for the activists to connect with international transgender activist. As a result, the young transgender activists can learn from overseas experience.
(4) Opportunities and suggestions
Although the LGBT movement in China faces a lot of difficulties, it still has considerable room for development. There are also social resources to be cultivated by young LGBT activists. Young LGBT activists need to make efforts in three aspects to improve the situation of Tongzhi communities and change the attitude of the society. First, they need to utilize the existing space well. They need to use the existing social institutions to protect the rights of LGBT people. Also, they need to lay the foundation for next steps. Second, young LGBT activists need to bring LGBT rights into mainstream issues. For example, the Law of the Peoples Republic of China on the Protection of Minor officially includes sex education and prevention of school bullying. This inclusion calls for young Tongzhi activists to develop continuous and in-depth advocacy work on the issues of education and school bullying. Third, young LGBT activists need to develop multi-sector collaboration and build broad alliances. Young Tongzhi activists also need to learn from the experiences of other social movements in order to expand their imagination of social movement. Connection among activists is also a way to resist the division among civil society caused by the government.
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